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Rebecca Ley: For When I'm Gone

Chapter One

Sylvia's Manual

It's definitive now, you heard him. "Nothing more we can do", he said, before using words like "comfortable", "time" and "family". Soothing sentences, carefully chosen.

He didn't find it easy, I'll admit that. Dr Z. Young, earnest frown, getting it right. But it was a job to him. And I resented that. Never mind his sweet professionalism, his unblemished skin. It turns out dying hasn't made me a saint after all, you see. I so wish it had.

Anyway, now we know for sure, I'm doing this. Since it turns out that all the treatment and trials, the cannulae and caffeine were for nothing, it seems right.

I'm not going to tell you that I'm writing this. Not yet, anyway. I don't think you've accepted things, even after what Dr Z said. You seem to be operating on your own flight path, denial holding you in mid-air. I know that's what is making it possible to get out of bed, get the children to school, hold my hand. But I miss feeling like we're heading in the same direction.

You don't want to talk about it. What we've lost. And all I want to do is chat. About what happened to us, the good and bad. Our everyday tale of love and mutilation. That ordinary, precious happiness we stumbled upon. The times you surprised me out of surliness with a dropped kiss on the back of my neck as I made packed lunches. The unsolicited cups of tea, sofa suppers, hugs where soaking up the other's radiant warmth felt like sunbathing.

And when I try to turn to what happens next, you shush me like a child. Make me feel morbid. That focus on the present, always your way. An accidental Buddhism. I've always envied you for it, but now it leaves me dissatisfied.

So, I'm writing this. A manual for when I'm gone. The how-to guide nobody ever wants to write. It's all the rage nowadays, don't you know? There seem to be so many of us going through the same thing. Clustering on chat rooms, like masses glowing on MRI scans. Swapping tips about the best hiking socks to keep our feet warm and which disgusting tea really has the most antioxidants.

And lots of us are writing guides for our families. In order that they remember when to de-flea the dog and where the window keys are and, in turn, to remember us. It's a vain attempt to weave ourselves into your future, just like we did the present.

Yet, I've debated endlessly about whether to write one. Knowing the exact brand of plastic cheese that Jude favours isn't going to change my absence. But that's not all. There's the other stuff too, the things I should have told you before it was too late. Like a furball lodged at the back of my throat.

Now, ironically, I've got time on my hands. So many hours now to fill. I'm bored of box sets. At last. Tired of novels. And I can't do social media any longer. Those sunsets, salads and smiling children have lost their allure. Frankly, it's a bit of a relief. I'm starting to draw in.

I did wonder briefly if I should do this in the form of a vlog instead, so you and the children have me talking to you, properly. A hologram from the other side. But I'm so reduced now. I side-eye mirrors and shun fierce daylight. I don't want this to be how you remember me, as fragile. You helped me find a strength and purpose I didn't realise I was capable of. That's the woman I'd like you to fix in your mind, forever.

There's a pathetic corollary to that, one it embarrasses me to admit. I assumed that after all of this I wouldn't care about how I look, but vanity still lingers. I miss my hair. My breasts. You do too, don't deny it. That look on your face, when I unveiled the reconstruction, like a child biting into a chocolate bar with an unexpected filling.

So, look at old pictures to remember my face. Those thousands of snapshots stored in a digital cloud, like unshed raindrops. Photographs pre-diagnosis, pre-treatment – maybe even pre-kids, when I was soft-faced and still thought life was easy and circumscribable. And then read this, to remember the rest of me. Who I am now.

I'm just so sorry to leave you in this position. I wouldn't want to be you, trying to be me, facing those tantrums and parents' evenings on your own. The food on the floor. The detritus on the stairs. The flotsam of family life that washes in every night, like a tide.

But I'm angry, too. I can't bear the unfairness. I'm not done. After what happened to Rosa, I thought our bad luck was done. It is unjust that you can't euthanise me like your animals. All those cancerous cats, submitting to your gentle touch and murmured words, oblivious to their sheer good luck.

I know I'm supposed to say that I hope you move on. I have said that. And I do mean it. Or at least part of me does. My best side. But there's another bit of me too and, in the spirit of full disclosure, I'm going to lay it down here. I struggle to bear the thought of you with someone else. If she's nice, it will be even worse. The children will forget more quickly, I'll be bottom-drawered.

Sometimes, in the small hours, I imagine this faceless woman holding them, when I can't. Sitting in our kitchen, where we shared so many happy times. I'm worried she might be a better mother than I was, perhaps the one they deserved all along. Calmer and more organised, adept at reward charts and batch cooking. But I know she won't love them as much as I do. For all my shortcomings, my many faults, of this one thing I am sure.

And, I expect - encourage - you to find her anyway. I'm just offering up my honesty as a final love token, like a lock of the red hair that I should have harvested for you before it was gone forever. All I have now are grey chemo curls. The new me. So, my candour is my gift. Please take it as such.

Now a freelance journalist, Rebecca Ley has worked at The Times, The Sun and The Daily Mail, as a staff writer and editor, and wrote a column in The Guardian about her father's dementia. She has contributed to all the major newspapers and numerous magazines. She has three children and lives in London. For When I'm Gone is her first novel and you can find it here.

1 Comment

Itosha Hamilton
Itosha Hamilton
Jun 24, 2021


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